The Senate is in a row over the leak of a memo written by a staffer for the Democratic minority members of the Committee on Intelligence. It urges the Democrats, led by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, to break with the Republican majority and conduct its own inquiry into events leading up to the war with Iraq. After a fiery denunciation by the committee chair, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, at the mere suggestion of a minority walkout, Senate majority leader Bill Frist (Republican of Tennessee) put a hold on any inquiry until Senator Rockefeller yields up the name of the Democrats’ insolent staffer. From the beginning, as we have noted on this page (“Noble Lies?” 7/7), Senator Roberts has held a tight grip on the hearings, refusing to conduct them in public and restricting the inquiry to the C.I.A.’s role. The effect is transparent: to prevent examination of the role of top administration officials, up to and including the president, in the interpretation and use of prewar intelligence. Blaming the staffer is like blaming the boy who shouts, “The emperor has no clothes.”
The staffer’s notion that the Bush administration’s architects of “a unilateral, preventive war” need to be “exposed” is a sensible one. The Democratic minority, which supported the war, has been flummoxed and virtually voiceless for too long. After six months of searching, the military has not found weapons of mass destruction, and it appears that W.M.D.’s did not exist, having been destroyed by weapons inspectors or the Iraqis themselves in the early 1990’s. American intelligence, it appears, was grossly defective, but it also seems to have been manipulated to make the case for war.
In addition, we now know that the administration ignored or rejected a number of back-channel communications from Saddam Hussein seeking to avert war. One recently publicized message would have permitted the United States to assist in the search and destruction of weapons of mass destruction and allowed democratic elections in Iraq. Precisely because this was a preventive “war of choice,” it would have been not only prudent but morally incumbent on the administration to pursue such olive branches, even from the wily Saddam Hussein, especially since there was no imminent threat to the United States. That the administration did not do so makes it seem that it was simply intent on war. More than sufficient evidence has been made public to warrant a thorough public inquiry into how the country was whipped into racing headlong into an unnecessary war.
Decision-making at the top of the administration needs Senate oversight even more than does the gathering and evaluation of intelligence. The Congress, swept along by the tide of the war against terror, gave the president carte blanche. Faced with a mid-term election, the Democrats succumbed to war fever, ceding their role as a loyal opposition. Some leading Democratic senators even refused to discuss the impending war with Catholic delegations who sought meetings with them last winter. As the cost in lives and treasure of the Iraq war mounts and its folly as policy becomes ever more apparent, Congress must set aside partisan considerations and reassert, if belatedly, its authority over issues of war and peace. The responsibility belongs to the whole Congress. Republicans as well as Democrats should be clamoring for open inquiry. If the Intelligence Committee cannot do the job, then let the Foreign Relations Committee, which is headed by the respected Senator Richard Lugar (Republican of Indiana) and includes outstanding Republican critics like Nebraska’s Senator Chuck Hagel, expand its own inquiry and take it on.
Terrible precedents have been set by this war, not the least of which are the loss of serious Congressional oversight and the collapse of civil opposition on the part of the Democrats. As we preach democracy abroad, we need to revive it at home. We need to protect American democracy against the self-inflicted wounds of the war on terror, of which the war in Iraq is the most grievous gash. The first challenge in that struggle is for Congress to reclaim its tradition of responsible bipartisanship in foreign policy and for Democrats and Republicans to voice publicly their criticisms of the flawed but willful policymaking that led to war.
A majority of Americans no longer believe that the war in Iraq was necessary to defend the nation against terrorism. The Congress must assume its responsibility for having taken us into an unnecessary war. To do so requires that legislators understand how we were led into the conflict. Past faults will be corrected and future mistakes avoided only to the degree that lawmakers can pursue their inquiries right to the top. Willful ignorance will only compound Congressional complicity in waging war without sufficient cause.